The video below is a dramatization (although not much of one) of “common sense” and part of its infrastructure, namely, “sincerity.” Donald Trump has been trying to capitalize on this deep-seated American value where “common sense” or “plain talk” or “telling it like it is” is glorified as the highest form of discourse. John McCain in 2000 termed his campaign tours as the “Straight Talk Express.” Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” and the rhetorical technicalities of Bernie Sanders continue this effort to convince people that they are authentic and lack any pretenses. The Norman Rockwell image of the common man standing up to speak plainly is burned into our psyches and is an iconic image of communicative authenticity.
Well, I’m here to point out the dangers and the potential damage of this rhetorical shell game called “straight talk.” Trump is the worst perpetrator of this myth and he is successfully fooling millions into believing he is actually worth listening to. The assumption that one is “telling it like it is” or doing nothing but “talking straight” is a dangerous myth that weakens the quality of decision-making and directs attention away from substantive issues. Of course, for Trump directing attention away from substantive issues is just the point. Since he does not know anything about foreign policy, governance, or macroeconomics he has to redirect the conversation. Thus, he has spent his time trying to convince the populace that he is “sincere”.
Political communication is organized around language and symbols of various types so it is particularly important that we attend to words, their meaning, and how they are used. Otherwise we are confused about the state of political discourse and are likely to come to poor decisions. The myth of straight talk directs attention to a preferred ethical stance related to sincerity rather than the quality of reasoning. Sincerity is, of course, important because we do not want to believe our leaders or communicative partners are lying or manipulating us. But sincerity doesn’t have anything to do with the quality or truth value of what we are saying. You can “sincerely” say something stupid and inaccurate.
But it gets worse. Performing sincerity is designed to convince the listener that the source of the message is not only being truthful but also complete. The implication is that everything of importance and relevance is being said and nothing is left out. The speaker is providing all relevant information and nothing else is pertinent. This blunts the listener’s responsibility to pursue additional information. So when Trump says, “the economy is in terrible shape” (which it certainly and clearly is not) he wants you to accept that statement on the basis of his sincerity and not facts.
And it gets worse again. Convincing someone you are being sincere and speaking “straight” is designed to relieve the source of the message of any further responsibilities. The implication is you no longer need to inquire any further or challenge anything I have to say because I have “laid it all out.” It’s a way of saying a speaker is not responsible for what he says, and thereby sealing him from criticism, because he has fulfilled his responsibilities.
More than a few times I’ve heard people whom I know can barely pay their bills characterize the billionaire narcissist Trump as “telling it like it is” and a “man of the people.” To describe Donald Trump as “like the average guy” – meaning a sincere absence of artifice and symbolic trickery – means you have been thoroughly co-opted by the candidate’s studied sincerity.
Language and symbols are central to political communication, but so is critical inquiry. If leaders and political figures are going to be held responsible for their words, which is crucial to the democratic political process, then the capacities of the subject population must not be limited; it must be possible for them to interrogate leaders and satisfy truth challenges. Trump has skillfully convinced many to substitute his calculated sincerity for thoughtful critical inquiry. This can be dangerous and we have seen historical precedents for this danger.
Conversations are difficult when one or both parties are fixed on an ideological position they consider a core value fundamental to their concept of truth and personal identity. These difficult conversations are the genuinely “hard” part of managing conflicts and in many ways more important than the military dimension. It is certainly easier to kill someone then to change their ideology. Moreover, security measures do not sufficiently engage the problem when the true enemy is an ideology that must be communicatively confronted. Conversations are difficult for four reasons primarily.
- The nature of their content: those political or religious positions that claim to speak to God and know the mind of God, and believe that God has a plan or an inevitable future, will be particularly recalcitrant. Yes, radical Islam fits this definition but so do extreme versions of Christianity, Judaism, or any body of thinking and literature rooted in religious cosmology. Some are more dangerous than others because of a tradition of activism and preaching. Orthodox Judaism, for example, does not have a tradition of expansionist preaching and is thus less threatening than some other traditions even though they are still a narrow vision based on the presumed word of God. Cultures of shame and honor are also particularly sensitive to humiliations of various sorts and often likely to respond violently.
- Radical versus assimilationist thinking: some people hold strict religious or political opinions and even want to impose them on others but they take a slow education oriented approach. They support a comprehensive system of influences – economic, artistic, educational, cultural, and political – and assume that in time others will assimilate into the “truth.” But those positions that include radical approaches, which desire quicker satisfaction, are more likely to advocate violence and be more difficult to work with. Slower assimilationist approaches are more subject to counter influences. After a generation, for example, of living in the United States a family may have absorbed the values of liberal democracy. Conversation with the radical is clearly more challenging because it typically uses more threats, blame, humiliation, and demands for apologies.
- Belief in an essential cause: participants in discussions often get to a point where they have identified what is considered the “essential” cause of the problem. This essential cause takes on considerable explanatory power and becomes difficult to change. For example, some blame the United States for the rise of violent Islam and it is US foreign policy that becomes the “essential cause” of the problem. Others might cherry pick the Koran and find references that are used as essential explanations for violence. A belief in an essential cause is typically accompanied by blame which is psychologically satisfying.
- Incommensurate narratives: when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct and the qualities of each culture are significantly different, then these differences make the conversation difficult. Cultures like the Israelis and Palestinians present different accounts of historical events and selectively emphasize and organize motivations. These incommensurate narratives are cultural conflicts that make interaction even more difficult because the two sides are locked into images of the past and myths about the future. This concentration on the past becomes powerfully influential because the sides believe that lessons learned from the past are particularly timeless and resistant to change. The narrative or story each group tells about its self becomes glorified as a timeless truth and a steady beacon. Consequently, tolerance and change our challenge.
Of course, there are other qualities of conflict – psychological, communicative, political, economic – that make conversations difficult. But these four pose particularly demanding (shall we say almost impossible) conditions that make for difficult conversations.
What are the communicative, cognitive, and social psychological processes associated with change? Or, how do positive outcomes associated with contact come into being. Below I explain the processes most associated with how and why contact ameliorates or make change possible between conflicting parties.
Humans are open system information processors who are always subject to the influences of information. Even the most prejudiced person, with the most rigid boundaries and categories for classifying others, can unfreeze or loosen those categories in order to process new information or integrate new meanings. Any process of reciprocal interaction (contact) requires cues and stimuli to be integrated and made sense of. This is a conscious activity guided by individuals who take any sort of inconsistency, puzzlement, new information, or confusion and make sense of it. Consequently, two members of conflicting parties can have contact with one another and expect some sort of information processing that alters the cognitive content and boundaries of each. Surely this will vary by individuals with some being more recalcitrant and resistant to change than others. But all individuals by the very nature of their information processing capabilities are subject to change. The contact hypothesis, in the hands of knowledgeable facilitators, is designed to direct this process as much as possible; the conditions of contact can be controlled such that they maximize the opportunities for communication to work. Contact, and the information processing that accompanies it, is by definition communicative and interactive and potentially transformational even if the transformation is minimal. By emphasizing interpersonal exchanges the chances for altering attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and perceptions are increased potentially resulting in change for individuals and groups. This possibility for learning and integrating new information makes it possible to develop practices related to positive change such as restorative justice, forgiveness, cooperation, and reconciliation. It is grounded in a cultural context and articulates a subjectively central interaction where the participants are the primary resources.
Groups in conflict must adjust and change for the purpose of peaceful relationships, political order, and the recognition of group rights. Interactions between divergent groups, then, are subject to different perspectives and patterns of communication necessary for reaching across symbolic divides and working toward consensus on difficult issues. Contact experiences can be designed for maximum conditions essential to the linking and convergence sought after by conflicting groups. Dryzek (2010), for example, makes the distinction between bonding communication and bridging communication. Bonding communication takes place when people in groups are similar and share similar backgrounds and cultures. Bonding intensifies commonalities and identification with others. For instance, Yasser Arafat was known to speak one way to his own people and another way to international or culturally different groups. When speaking to his own cultural group he engaged in bonding forms of communication by using Arabic communication patterns and emotionally arousing discourse. This type of communication intensifies group identity and deepens divisions with outgroups. Of course, President Bush adopted a bonding discourse in order to solidify support after 9/11. Bonding discourse can separate groups into polarized differences and reinforce attitudes. It is not the kind of communication most conducive to unfreezing prejudices or moderating stereotypes of outgroups. Rather, a contact experience would benefit from communicative arrangements designed to “bridge” individuals and groups. Bridging communication takes the perspective of the other and works to incorporate it into one’s own outlook. The goal is to bridge or transcend differences between groups by providing some pathway from one group reality to the other. Contact experiences are fundamentally concerned with bridging disparate realities by using communication to coordinate and manage meanings and relationships. Such bridging contact can be difficult because group members must recognize and understand the attitudes and beliefs of the other and adjust or incorporate them in some way. There are any number of psychological barriers, filters, and defense mechanisms that make bridging communication difficult. The burden of bridging communication is considerable especially when one group is a discriminated against minority. Bridging communication must find overarching shared values that appeal to and connect both sides. So, for example, even though one side (e.g. Palestinians) is discriminated against they must participate in the task of building bridges in order to achieve full rights and representation.
Do You Want to Stop Extremist Groups? Don’t Change Messages, Change the Receivers for These Messages
Communication perspectives have a long history of trying to teach people which particular message produces which affects, as if the message were a bullet traveling through space that simply needed to be aimed properly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of thinking about communication as an instrumentality that is constantly looking to push the right button to achieve a predetermined desired effect. So, for example, my own work in dialogue and deliberation still often – not always – reads as if success is simply finding the optimal input conditions that lead to some output.
But there is another way of thinking about how to achieve particular effects. Rather than thinking of the receiver of a message as a passive mechanism with an absorptive sponge for a brain, and then spending your time trying to find the right message that will be absorbed as you designate, change the receiver rather than the message. Make new receivers that will be more or less poised to receive particular messages. Let me explain.
The U. S. is currently struggling to defeat extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and a host of other radical groups. Most of the news about our efforts to degrade these extremist groups is pretty bad. Terrorist and violent groups are successfully recruiting new members, winning their share of battles, raising money, and generally prospering. Our military, mighty as it is, will not defeat the Islamic State and no informed counselor to the president believes military force is the only answer – important as it is. So what are we to do?
One answer is to change the terrorists and make them less interested in violence. A more traditional approach consistent with the silver bullet metaphor above is to “lecture” terrorists on democracy, and pluralism, and liberalism, and all those good things and assume that if we can only find the right words with the right pedagogical strategy then these ideas will “take” and we will turn them all into liberal democrats. Well as a popular quip goes, “good luck with that.”
But a second way to approach the problem is to change social structures and business arrangements such that they foster capitalist enterprises and market economies. Don’t try to change people, change social systems and the people will follow. Hernando De Soto wrote about this some months ago in the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to raise living standards and inject the cultures with some imagination and capital especially for the poor. And interestingly, turns out that the poor in many cultures, both Latin American and Middle Eastern, are not poor because of simple unemployment as conventional wisdom would hold. Rather, they are small businessmen and women operating “off the books” in an underground and informal economy.
If economic leaders and advisers in Middle Eastern states would eliminate regulation, and bureaucratic extremes including recognizing the importance of property rights, they would create customers for businesses and leave extremist groups with fewer customers. This is consistent with the goal of leaving groups like ISIS without constituencies, which is currently the goal in Iraq after the deposition of Malaki. On the political front of the strategy is to bring Sunnis into the political system including official bodies of governance on the assumption that they will not turn their attention to outside extremist groups. The same logic can work on an economic basis. The perceptions of these communities must change so they are seen as future vibrant markets rather than training grounds for violence. There is some history, according to De Soto, of these capitalist strategies working in Peru, China, Botswana, and others. And finally, it’s fairly well established that businesses rationalize human relationships. Former intergroup enemies can be interdependent on the basis of a commercial exchange. And if you change the relationship you can change attitudes and values.
I’m naïve you say? Maybe.
It sounds a little benign, but the issues surrounding torture are very much communication issues. I don’t consider pure torture to be communicative in the proper sense of the term but a decision not to torture is certainly communicative because it means information will be extracted and processed through the communication process. There is nothing wrong with interrogating someone purely through the interactional process with the goal of trying to get information, as long as this process remains fully symbolic. But of course any process that is fully symbolic and “interactive” in the most straightforward sense of the term is subject to wide latitudes of interpretation, pragmatic complexities, and semantic confusions. Prevarication is always part of a pure human symbolic activity not to mention time constraints, speed of information acquisition, and other practical limitations.
People start to justify torture when the information is considered crucial and must be obtained quickly. Moreover, the moral argument is typically overcome by the principle of the “greater good.” In other words, the potential to save lives or do good outweighs the opportunity to maintain moral purity. Security and intelligence specialists feel responsible for protecting the lives of others and thus acquiring information from an enemy is vital. Torture becomes justified by an appeal to a “higher” good.
There remains the question of simply whether or not torture works. In other words if a political system institutes a program of torture is it the case that inputting torture leads to an output of truth. Arrigo posits three potential theoretical suggestions for how torture leads to truth. These are the animal instinct model, the cognitive failure model, and the data processing model. Each has complexities and strengths and weaknesses that are beyond our concern here but all share an “informational” quality in terms of predictions about whether or not the model leads to the truth it seeks.
Briefly, the animal instinct model is simply that in order to avoid pain or death one will meet the demands of the torturer and utter the truth. The problem with this model is that it requires considerable brutality and subjects will say anything to avoid the pain. A second model is the cognitive failure model and it holds that torture creates incompetence in the subject and it is impossible for him to maintain any deceptions. This process is lengthy which makes information less valuable over time of and often the subject can’t distinguish between true statements and erroneous ones. The third model is the data processing model and it poses the theoretical position that extracts bits and pieces of both true and false information from subjects and then uses that with other information to complete a comprehensive analysis. This is the most common model and approximates the way interrogation specialists whether they inflict pain or not actually operate. They defend the information value of their work by defending the notion of accumulating small bits of information that finally amounts to something.
In the end, torture just doesn’t work very well. Of course appeals to morality and democratic liberties are potent arguments that must be respected. But the arguments for enhanced interrogation or torture by any definition always include the pleas for speed and the “ticking bomb” argument that some disaster must be prevented immediately. More than a few studies have reported the ill consequences of coercive interrogation which are serious societal moral objections, false evidence, manipulated evidence, corrosive corruption and secrecy, and even the involvement of organized crime. Arrigo reports that changes in information value when torture is permitted are negligible.
When the public feels threatened it resorts quickly to extreme means to solve problems and identify dangers. The public support for torture varies as a function of its perception of threat. Managing these threats through communicative and political means will eliminate the conditions that nourish the demand for coercive interrogation, and eliminate the time pressure that justifies such interrogations.
ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber
This won’t stop if we don’t talk
It is probably unimaginable to think of Hamas and Israel actually talking civilly but getting to the negotiating table is the only answer. Here are some thoughts on doing that.
The above phrase in transliterated Hebrew is going around Israel. It means “this will not stop if we don’t talk” and it appears on protest signs, news stories, and casual conversation. It rhymes in Hebrew. Truer words have never been spoken. The issue is not how to talk to each other or what form those talks should take, the issue is getting to the table. All of our knowledge and skill at communication, dialogue and deliberation, is wasted and unavailable if you cannot get the two parties to the table. If Hamas or Israel insists that the other side must be destroyed or their incompatibilities are irreversible and there’s nothing to talk about, then the violence and conflict will simply continue.
At the moment I’m concerned about getting to the table. Essentially, this is the issue of “ripeness” which you can read more about here. Ripeness refers to the right time or the belief that the conditions are best for talking and solving problems. Right now no one would consider the time “ripe” for conflict management between Israel and Hamas for example. The time might be necessary or the most urgent given the violence but the situation is not ripe. “Ripeness” is a delicate matter because it is a little subjective and difficult to know when exactly is the “right time.” One can move too early, too late, too fast, or misjudge the other. Moreover, conflicts usually have more than one ripe time.
But I do not advocate sitting around waiting for the ripe moment. Participants in a conflict sometimes avoid ripe situations because they get more out of prolonging the conflict. Hamas always says it has “time on its side” because the status attributions it receives from war with Israel outweigh any benefits of negotiation and talk. One question becomes then how you create ripeness, how do you construct conditions that will increase the chances of bringing two sides to the table? Here are some strategies:
1. Third parties are always good sources of incentives. The Middle East has been most calm and in control when there is a significant international polity (the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the United States,) that can provide incentives for talks. Actually, anytime a third-party is willing to intervene and try to mediate the conflict it is a good indication of ripeness.
2. The second strategy for getting people to the table, although a less pleasant one, is waiting until things are so bad that negotiation becomes attractive. As the saying goes, “sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.”
3. Sometimes it’s possible to get people to the negotiating table by promising them more than they expect. Perhaps some symbolic recognition that was earlier denied, or a tangible resource.
4. New ways to be interdependent that benefit both sides are always strong strategies. Interdependence creates common interest and overlapping concerns and the two parties will talk if the reward possibilities are sufficient.
5. Pre-negotiations or “talking about talk.” Finally, it is sometimes useful to get the two parties to talk about how they would organize and develop dialogue or deliberation. Don’t engage in actual discussion and deliberation and do not term the conversation as official negotiation or discussion. But get the two parties together and have them imagine what the process would look like. This should move them closer to the actual experience of problem-solving deliberation.
Persuading the two parties to talk and find a way to negotiate a settlement – to get them to the table – is typically more difficult than constructing an actual settlement package. There are lots of solutions and proposals to end and contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of them are understood and accepted by both parties and not very controversial. But none of this matters if the two parties do not talk.
Below are the conditions most likely to make for “difficult” conversations. They can be considered part of deliberative and decision-making processes that must be taken into account in order for communication that will be the most workable. The citations can be unearthed for additional insight.
Incommensurate cultural narratives. Difficult conversations are more apparent when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct or even incommensurate with respect to cultural qualities. And there is no shortage of descriptors and statistics that report differences between cultures. But our concern here is not with general differences such as those posed by Hofstede (1980) but with those differences that represent cultural conflict. Conflicting cultures such as the Israelis and the Palestinians delegitimize each other and have qualities that exacerbate the differences thus making conversation or contact between the two groups “difficult.” The Israeli-Palestinian narrative represents significantly different accounts of the same historical events. They differ on how they selectively emphasize and organize events and motivations. But neither narrative recognizes very much legitimacy or pain of the other. Each blames the other and offers little recognition of its own behavior and how it has contributed to the conflict. Each sees the other as a threat and focuses on its own fears and reasons. Both sides demonize the other with historical events and have hardened their positions into mutually exclusive categories. The conflict captured by these competing narratives have certain cultural and psychological features that characterize them and these features are useful for understanding more precisely how cultural qualities make conversations difficult.
Cultural conflict becomes more restricted and difficult when both sides are heavily locked into the past, the myths of the culture’s birth and evolution. The Israeli narrative, for example, has been analyzed by many scholars with respect to its images of the past, parade of heroes and villains, and development of a worldview (Zerubavel, 1995). A key point is that these contemporary identities are constructed to meet contemporary needs by fashioning the modern narrative out of the past. The past is understood on the basis of the present. This is clearly the case for the Palestinians whose conflict ethos is completely directed toward its contemporary political conditions with the Israelis. This incommensurability with respect to interpretation of the past is particularly powerful because lessons drawn from the past are viewed as timeless and hence resistant to change. The past becomes glorified as a timeless truth that is a steady beacon of light. Consequently, conversations calculated to unlearn these lessons or change them are particularly “difficult.” There have been occasions when narratives converge and there is a movement toward mutuality. The Oslo Accords and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem are such occasions in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians. Although they are no guarantee, historical events such as these underscore the importance of leadership and identity widening.
Narrative particularity. Difficult conversations focus on particular emotional experiences that are presented as objective. There is a difference between narrative in history where history is more rooted in collective agreement about events and their meaning. But narrative focuses on particular events and weaves them into a story designed to serve group interests. Groups focus on emotional events such as victories or defeats and spend more time concentrating on the strength and character of their ingroup narrative than they do on the nature of the outgroup narrative. Hence, one’s own narrative becomes sharp and precise with clear defenses and the outgroup narrative is more opaque. Israelis overweight the “war of independence” or the “Six-Day War” while Palestinians interpret these events as a “Nakba” (disaster) or glorify the intifada.
A sharp and precise narrative produces high within-group agreement about the interpretation of events and results in intensified links between people. Consequently, any disagreement within the narrative becomes disloyalty and dissenters are particularly stigmatized as outgroups. Conversations become particularly difficult because high within group pressure is a powerful deterrent to change. Such pressure directs a wall of resistance to the exposure and adoption of new information and perspectives. But a regular discourse of deliberation or resolution does make the accumulation of new perspectives possible because we have seen new attitudes and beliefs emerge from intractable conflicts in a number of cases. The Israeli Zionist narrative, for example, has broken up with the rejection and alteration of many of its tenets and the narrative has somewhat less appeal than it did historically including the diminution of its emotional appeal.
Existential threat. This is a common characteristic of intractable conflicts which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.
Power differences. Conversations are most difficult and challenging when they are asymmetrical with respect to power (Deveaux, 2003). Power obstructs the pressures toward normative argumentation bound by norms of rationality. A clear position of power by one participant in a conversation pressures the person to use the power and makes him or her less amenable to listening and giving up strategic interests. Power distorts the issues and to the detriment of the process power becomes an issue itself. Dryzek (2010) reminds us that the deliberative and communicative processes involved are supposed to transform participants. They are supposed to help us clarify issues as well as deep commitments. But power makes it possible to exclude others and, more interestingly, it stunts normative reasoning. The conversation is clearly more difficult when the communication processes are distorted because of power asymmetry. And if one party is primarily concerned with its own status, or more concerned about one’s own gain and has the power to realize this, then there is not much incentive for good arguments and reasons in the deliberation process. The powerful party does not feel compelled to seek valid justifications because other easier power moves are available. In fact, an idealized version of deliberation might only reinforce the advantages of powerful participants. This would be especially true if the more powerful party has more symbolic capital than the less powerful party.
Delegitimization. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) write comprehensively about the psychology of delegitimization that is most fundamental to groups in conflict and perhaps most associated with the experience of difficult interactions. As part of intractable conflicts, where the parties have prolonged violent conflict and are existentially threatened, delegitimization adds stereotypes and distorted communication patterns to the mix. Delegitimization is categorizing the other group as outside the sphere of humanity and subject to moral exclusion (Opotow, 1990). Interaction between the two groups, either individually or on the group level, is more than difficult; it is often impossible. Intergroup relations such as that between Hamas and Israel is an example of delegitimization such that each group refuses to recognize the other and considers the other as undeserving of human recognition. The information received about delegitimized groups is not only distorted but dominated by conflict themes. Negative traits are attributed to the other including troublesome political labels, biased group comparisons, and homogenization of the other group that does not allow for individuality or member differentiations. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) explain how delegitimization involves stigmatizing the other group, which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.
Even during those heavy late-night conversations in college about God the guy with an unmovable opinion, who just couldn’t see outside his own boundaries, was annoying. Extreme voices, and the harsh opinions and rigid sensibilities that accompany them, are always a problem during deliberation or any attempted genuine discussion. The practicalities of deliberation require manageably sized groups that are small enough for sufficient participation in genuine engagement with the other side that is not defused throughout a large network of people. In fact, smaller deliberative groups provide a more empirical experience one that is more easily observed and measured.
Originally, deliberation was associated with existing political systems working to solve problems through liberal democratic means that include all of the normative expectations of deliberation. The “rationality” associated with deliberation is most realistic for intact political systems. Deeply divided groups – groups divided on the basis of ethnicity and religion – were thought incapable of such discourse. But in the last few years authors such as Sunstein and myself have made a case for deliberation and ethnopolitically divided groups on the basis not of rationality but of the “error reduction” that communication can provide. And as the empirical work in deliberation has evolved numerous practical issues focusing on how people actually communicate has been the subject of research attention. Moreover, researchers form smaller deliberative groups that are more practical.
One of the variables or issues that emerged from the research that the smaller deliberative groups make possible is the matter of extreme opinions. Deliberators in the true sense are supposed to be engaging one another intellectually for the purpose of preference formation, along with all of the normative ideals of deliberation. But in the “real world” of deliberation people behave differently and sometimes badly. Individuals with polarized opinions and attitudes are supposed to moderate them and work toward collaboration, but this is an ideal that is not often achieved. There are individuals who do not fully appreciate or respect deliberative ideals.
This difficulty of extreme opinions is particularly pertinent to conflicts between ethnopolitically divided groups where the conflicts are deep and intense. Conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians is characterized by highly divergent opinions and tension. People hold firm and unshakable opinions and discussions between these competing groups are filled with individuals who hold rigid and extreme opinions. At first glance, you would think that rigid opinions would be disruptive and certainly damaging to the deliberative ideal. And, of course, that is possible. Research has shown that sometimes when groups get together and talk the result is a worsening of relationships rather than improvement. Efforts to reduce stereotypes by increasing contact with the target of the stereotype can sometimes simply reinforce already present stereotypic images.
Almost all decision-making groups of any type, deliberative or not, struggle with the problem of members who have extremely rigid opinions and cannot be or will not be moved. Subjecting one’s influence to the better argument is an ideal of deliberation and this is thwarted if group members resist exposure to the other side. Those with rigid opinions typically pay little attention to any collaborative strategy since their goal is the imposition of their own opinions. But the communication process can once again come to the rescue and at least increase the probability of moderation mostly through the process of continued exposure to information, ideas, and counter positions. And although it’s more complex than that the basic communicative process is the initial platform upon which change rests.
It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.
The polarization that currently characterizes the American political environment, and is graphically depicted above, is a consequence of the degeneration of political relationships. Political friendships treat opponents as respectful adversaries, not enemies, that have common interests in problem resolution as much as anything else. The issue sophistication that comes with political relationships is quite compatible with the ability to sustain “reasonable disagreement.” Solving political and ethnopolitical conflicts involves initiating the two conflicting groups into the larger cultural conversation, where the understanding is that the conversation is about the relationship between the two groups. This involves creating a relationship where members of each group understand that they must engage in reasonable discourse, accept the burdens of justification, and reject illiberal attitudes and behaviors. Another way to think about it is as a network of weak ties. Weak ties are important forms of relationships that are more casual friendships or work relationships (e.g., acquaintance or coworkers) and engage in less intimate exchanges and share fewer types of information and support than those who report stronger relationships. Strong ties include in their exchanges a higher level of intimacy, more self disclosure, emotional as well as instrumental exchanges, reciprocity in exchanges, and more frequent interaction. We have fewer strong ties and they are more important to our personal lives. Facebook and electronic contacts create numerous weak ties that serve important functions.
What Danielle Allen (2004), in her book “Talking to Strangers”, describes as “political friendship” is a sort of important weak tie. This is the sort of friendship that goes beyond the close relationships we have with family members and intimates. Political friendship is a set of practices and habits used to solve problems and bridge difficult differences. Emotional attachment to the other is less important than the realization of interdependence and the need for practical problem resolution. This form of a communicative relationship serves as a useful outlet for conflict resolution, and allows minority groups in multicultural societies to establish mature relationships with the dominant group.
The concept of political friendship is important and deserving of some elaboration. It is necessary to develop a healthy path to the resolution and reconciliation of group conflicts in order to provide either citizens or members of competing groups with political and interpersonal agency. The idea of political friendship is particularly associated with citizenship which is not necessarily a matter of civic duties but a communicative role that values negotiation and reciprocity. It is an excellent relationship to cultivate between members of different cultural and political groups because it is based more on trust than self-interest. Political friendship recognizes self-interest but develops a relationship that rests on equitable self-interest; that is, a relationship where each attends to the utilitarian needs of the other. As Allen (2004) writes, “Equity entails, above all else and as in friendship a habit of attention by which citizens are attuned to the balances and imbalances in what citizens are giving up for each other.” (p. 134). Political friendship is less concerned with intimacy because intimacy is reserved for relatively few relationships that are more absorbing and based on sacrifice and strong identity with the other. But utilitarian political relationships can apply to large numbers of people and is focused on the pragmatics of problem solving or resource gratification. Parent-child, ruler and ruled, or superior- subordinate relationships are not political relationships because they limit the autonomy and agency of one person (the child, ruled, or subordinate) and are based on maximization of differences. In short, the political friendship relationship is central to the problems associated with multicultural contact and the ability of groups to develop their capacities for trust and communication. As Allen (2004) points out, we have to teach people how to “talk to strangers.”
It is necessary to identify some conditions of political friendship. These are habits of communication that facilitate the relationship. They include recognizing and publicly acknowledging groups and their differences as well as promoting deliberative environments and intelligent judgment. Many of these communication behaviors require exceptional sensitivity and tolerance. Recognizing a group, for example, that is less talkative or more remote from Western habits of thinking and either accepting the differences or trying to meld cultural norms is difficult. So minority groups simply need to learn communication skills most associated with success depending on the nature of the dominant culture. Diverse groups must understand their problems as “public” problems. Under the best conditions different groups will have secure knowledge of each other and a similar level of understanding about what is occurring between them.
Data seems to pretty clearly indicate that Americans in particular are changing their relationship with religion. It has been commented upon and written about with increasing frequency. The most typical change reported is that religion is becoming more individual; people are picking and choosing their own beliefs and practices and forming hybrid combinations that represent individual feelings and emotions. Moreover, private and subjective spirituality is replacing what were once coherent religious beliefs rooted in history and social and intellectual development. Finally, we hear more and more about the abandonment of institutions and the community’s general distaste for long-standing religious institutional doctrine and practices. Somehow the accumulated wisdom that informs institutional practices is fading away to be replaced by private preferences.
Bryan Turner, writing in the Social Science Research Council, offers up some interesting insights into the relationship between communication and religion (go here). Traditionally, the religious practice of communication was authoritative and hierarchical. It was a unitary system of beliefs influenced by clearly established sources of knowledge and wisdom (Popes, Priests, Imams, Rabbis). One receives messages and information from authoritative sources and the layperson’s communication was a node in a hierarchical chain with upward supplication and downward instruction.
New media – in the form of the Internet, Facebook, Web 2.0, cell phones, etc. – has upset this traditional religious communication structure. In the new media environment communication is more horizontal than hierarchical and certainly more diverse and fragmented than unitary. User generated possibilities have changed messages because such messages have become more devolved from authoritative status sources and more subject to negotiation and multiple interpretations. Turner points out that in Islam there has been an inflation of authoritative sources such that any local mullah can turn himself into a source of authority. Knowledge about religion has been democratized such that the Internet and pamphlets are equally as authoritative as individuals. People feel less need to attend their collective religious service because their needs are met with individual preferences and online religion.
Again, in the case of Muslims, they are learning increasingly more from the Internet especially Muslims in the diaspora. There is a correlation between the electronic network and the social network. This correlation has altered various distinctions between types of contact. As I said above, pagers, videophones, email, websites, and cell phones have transformed social relations in religious communities (especially diaspora communities) and offered new ways to theorize those communities. Some authors have explained how communities of people with religions in common use the Internet to cultivate a cosmopolitan democracy that addresses broader issues.
In the future we will see the increasing frequency of new public spheres because electronic media will provide access to thousands of individuals who share interests. The mobilization qualities of new media will make it possible to quickly amass like-minded individuals into electronic communities. Perhaps, we will come full circle and reconstitute larger institutional organizations. Globalization will be very dependent on the Internet as a source of connection to other cultures, including one’s home culture, and the combination of new interpersonal networks with the broad and fragmented information on the Internet will serve to reinforce individualism. Individualism and religion is a two edge sword; it can be associated with rigid thinking and fundamentalism as well as creativity and expressiveness.
New media and horizontal relationships rather than vertical ones will result in a form of individualism consistent with the general commodification of culture. In other words, religious choices and consumption are becoming more important than informed absorption into an established religious system. People want religious “goods” not “gods.” And although established religions will maintain a fair amount of strength and presence, processes for deinstitutionalization are in play as individuals learn to defend their own subjective spirituality and participate more fully in horizontal relationships formed and sustained by new media.
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